MARTA expansion bill scores victory in Legislature

A plan to let the city of Atlanta pursue a $2.5 billion expansion of MARTA scored an improbable victory on the last day of Georgia’s legislative session Thursday, championed by some of the same lawmakers who tried to defeat a similar proposal weeks ago.

The MARTA expansion, which is likely to include a long hoped for light rail system along the Beltline, would be funded with a half-percent sales tax increase that Atlanta voters first have to approve.

The legislation, Senate Bill 369, represents a compromise with GOP lawmakers who opposed an earlier plan put forth by Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, that included Fulton and DeKalb counties.

The compromise measure crafted by Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, exempts DeKalb, but allows Fulton to pursue a 0.25 percent sales tax for transit sometime in the future. For now, local leaders in Fulton are free to focus on their stated priority — passing a five-year, 0.75 percent sales tax referendum this November to pay for badly needed road improvements.

“This is a win for Fulton County, a win for Atlanta and a win for MARTA — a true win-win,” said Beach.

One of the previous opponents, Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, said the measure that ultimately passed is one he supported because it was a changed bill — one that rejected a one-size-fits-all solution.

“I’m thrilled to get this done and over the goal line,” Albers said. “It’s the right answer.”

Next, a series of steps

Fulton County Chairman John Eaves issued a statement thanking lawmakers for setting aside their differences to take action.

“Fulton is a diverse county in every way and this legislation gives us the flexibility to meet the needs of the individual cities, from Milton to Atlanta to Chattahoochee Hills and everywhere in between,” said Eaves.

A series of steps have to occur before the sales tax increase in Atlanta could take effect. The City Council would have to approve a proposed project list and schedule a referendum for November 2016 or 2017. Then, a majority of voters would have to endorse the plan.

Residents of Atlanta already pay a 1 percent MARTA sales tax. The increase would bump the sales tax rate in the city to 8.5 percent from 8 percent. Projected revenue from the tax, which would last through 2057, would be about $2.5 billion.

Transit on the Beltline

MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe said that the transit agency’s staff is already working on a list of potential projects to share with the city.

“My best guess is the lion’s share would go to expanding the transit on the Beltline,” said Ashe, adding that the city might also contemplate building infill rail stations or extending a rail line by a stop or two.

Because of financial constraints, constructing transit lines along the entire 22-mile circle of the Beltline would likely have to be done in phases, rather than all at once, said Ashe.

The legislation, if signed into law, would allow the city to embark on the largest MARTA funding expansion in the transit authority’s history and begin to prepare for the influx of new residents that is expected in coming decades.

“It is a real opportunity to make real progress around rail construction around the Beltline, which many folks said would never happen,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said last week.

Reed said MARTA’s existing heavy rail could be integrated with new light rail lines that go deeper into intown neighborhoods. The light rail would be similar to a streetcar, but operate within its own lane.

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